The best books to contemplate food systems

Catherine Zabinski Author Of Amber Waves: The Extraordinary Biography of Wheat, from Wild Grass to World Megacrop
By Catherine Zabinski

Who am I?

I am a plant and soil ecologist, and have spent my working life researching and teaching within the university system. I am also a reader of poetry and literature, and particularly drawn to authors who write so well that you are pulled into a topic that you didn’t know was of interest. I wrote a biography of wheat because I really like plants, and I thought that writing about one of our crop plants could attract readers who like to eat. Along the way, I got fascinated by the layered complexities of our food system. Reading about it is another way to reflect on our relationship with the planet. 


I wrote...

Amber Waves: The Extraordinary Biography of Wheat, from Wild Grass to World Megacrop

By Catherine Zabinski,

Book cover of Amber Waves: The Extraordinary Biography of Wheat, from Wild Grass to World Megacrop

What is my book about?

Since the first harvest of wild grass seeds, we have developed our farming methods to grow massive fields of wheat, producing one of our global mega crops. Amber Waves draws on ecology, evolution, and history to tell the story of one species and how our need to secure food has influenced both the development of our societies and the evolutionary pathway of our crop species. The story of wheat starts with a humble grass growing in the foothills of the Zagros mountains, and recounts its spread across all but the polar continents. Amber Waves sheds new light on our relationship with species that we use as food, through famines and wars, and peace initiatives, and asks us to consider how we can sustainably grow the food that supports so much human life.

The books I picked & why

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Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America

By Liz Carlisle,

Book cover of Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America

Why this book?

Part of a functioning food system is supporting the farmers who grow our crops. In Lentil Underground, Liz Carlisle introduces us to a network of farmers in Montana who made the decision to grow organic lentils and the work it took to make that economically viable. Carlisle’s writing has you sitting at the kitchen table with innovative members of the agricultural community.

Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America

By Liz Carlisle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lentil Underground as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A protégé of Michael Pollan shares the story of a little known group of renegade farmers who defied corporate agribusiness by launching a unique sustainable farm-to-table food movement.

The story of the Lentil Underground begins on a 280-acre homestead rooted in America’s Great Plains: the Oien family farm. Forty years ago, corporate agribusiness told small farmers like the Oiens to “get big or get out.” But twenty-seven-year-old David Oien decided to take a stand, becoming the first in his conservative Montana county to plant a radically different crop: organic lentils. Unlike the chemically dependent grains American farmers had been told…


The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food

By Adam Gopnik,

Book cover of The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food

Why this book?

This is a wonderful read about food, about how we enjoy food, and about how we eat food. It’s part history, part sociology, part recipes, and beautifully written. Gopnik has lived in France, and the book is centered on French ideas about food, and given France’s obsession with cuisine, that feels totally appropriate. 

The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food

By Adam Gopnik,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Table Comes First as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Never before have we cared so much about food. It preoccupies our popular culture, our fantasies, and even our moralizing—“You still eat meat?” With our top chefs as deities and finest restaurants as places of pilgrimage, we have made food the stuff of secular seeking and transcendence, finding heaven in a mouthful. But have we come any closer to discovering the true meaning of food in our lives?
 
With inimitable charm and learning, Adam Gopnik takes us on a beguiling journey in search of that meaning as he charts America’s recent and rapid evolution from commendably aware eaters to manic,…


Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking

By Bill Buford,

Book cover of Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking

Why this book?

Buford recounts his story of what originally was supposed to be a year in France, learning to cook, French style, through an apprenticeship in Lyon. While the whole story is engaging, maybe the most interesting part for me was the tale that runs throughout about Bob, the boulanger, and his quest to make bread from the flour with a specific terroir, because the soils and climate were essential to the quality of his baguettes. 

Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking

By Bill Buford,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dirt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“You can almost taste the food in Bill Buford’s Dirt, an engrossing, beautifully written memoir about his life as a cook in France.” —The Wall Street Journal

What does it take to master French cooking? This is the question that drives Bill Buford to abandon his perfectly happy life in New York City and pack up and (with a wife and three-year-old twin sons in tow) move to Lyon, the so-called gastronomic capital of France. But what was meant to be six months in a new and very foreign city turns into a wild five-year digression from normal life, as…


Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture

By Wes Jackson,

Book cover of Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture

Why this book?

Jackson has devoted his career to reforming agriculture by applying ecological principles garnered from prairie lands of the Bread Basket of North America. Based in Kansas, Jackson has worked toward generating perennial crops that don’t need to be seeded annually, and could be grown in mixtures (a grain, an oil seed, and a legume), to support healthy soils that will sustain food production for many generations. This book lays out the arguments for his approach and challenges the basis of our agricultural systems. 

Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture

By Wes Jackson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Consulting the Genius of the Place as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Locavore leaders such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Barbara Kingsolver all speak of the need for sweeping changes in how we get our food. A longtime leader of this movement is Wes Jackson, who for decades has taken it upon himself to speak for the land, to speak for the soil itself. Here, he offers a manifesto toward a conceptual revolution: Jackson asks us to look to natural ecosystems—or, if one prefers, nature in general—as the measure against which we judge all of our agricultural practices.

Jackson believes the time is right to do away with annual monoculture grains,…


On Immunity: An Inoculation

By Eula Biss,

Book cover of On Immunity: An Inoculation

Why this book?

Okay, this is not a book about food systems, but I included it because it is a beautifully written book that poses a question about vaccines (written prior to pandemic vaccine issues), and then circles around that question in a reflective and artful way. Biss writes about a topic with clarity and depth, in beautiful prose. And even though this book isn’t about food, it shares with questions of food systems the basic conundrum of how to make individual choices to ensure our loved ones are healthy in the face of a large system designed to manage either food or medical resources for everyone.  

On Immunity: An Inoculation

By Eula Biss,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked On Immunity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Best Seller
A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
A New York Times Book Review Top 10 Book of the Year
A Facebook "Year of Books" Selection

One of the Best Books of the Year
* National Book Critics Circle Award finalist * The New York Times Book Review (Top 10) * Entertainment Weekly (Top 10) * New York Magazine (Top 10)* Chicago Tribune (Top 10) * Publishers Weekly (Top 10) * Time Out New York (Top 10) * Los Angeles Times * Kirkus * Booklist * NPR's Science Friday * Newsday * Slate * Refinery…


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